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Open Container Laws

Open Container Laws Beer Bottle and OpenerGeneral Information

Open Container Laws have been enacted in forty states.  These laws apply to any type of alcoholic beverage, supplied in a bottle, can, or any other type container capable of holding an alcoholic beverage.

Essential Characteristics 

These laws frequently vary in content from state to state, but they also share certain common features, particularly in specifying the places where open containers are prohibited.  In general, these are public sidewalks, schools, government buildings or other property, public parks, common areas belonging to apartment buildings and hotels, and parking lots.

The laws also make a distinction between open containers found in one of these public places and when found in a motor vehicle.  While some jurisdictions entirely ban the possession of open containers of alcoholic beverages in motor vehicles, most regulate them in specific ways.

Open Containers in a Motor Vehicle

States make a distinction between open containers of alcoholic beverages found in a motor vehicle, depending on whether the container is in possession of the driver, or a passenger.  Forty states make it illegal for anyone in a motor vehicle, driver or passengers to drink or possess an open container while driving, in accordance with Federal guidelines.

Drinking or possessing an open container of alcoholic beverages is prohibited in motor vehicles intended for public transportation for hire, which includes buses, limousines, and taxis.

Exceptions in Open Container Laws

Although most states have open container laws, several states do not.  Virginia and Mississippi are two examples.  In Mississippi, for example, passengers, as well as the driver of a private motor vehicle, may possess and consume alcoholic beverages while driving, provided the blood alcohol level remains below 0.8 per cent.  Nevertheless, even in states without open container laws, there may be local, municipal ordinances prohibiting possession of open containers in motor vehicles.

The possession of an open container, as well as alcohol consumption, is not prohibited in vehicles such as a motor home.

Certain cities, with a thriving tourist trade, such as New Orleans, Louisiana and Las Vegas, Nevada, have no laws prohibiting open containers in public, but to comply with their laws, the container must be made of plastic.  These places will still enforce laws against public intoxication and any disorderly conduct resulting from it.

Although open container laws ordinarily apply to any place within a vehicle, that usually does not include the trunk of a private car.

States generally make an exception to open container laws when a person is transporting a bottle of wine home that was bought at a restaurant but not entirely consumed at the restaurant.

Some Criteria for Violation of Open Container Laws

 To be charged under open container laws while driving, the incident must have taken place on a public roadway, and the bottle cap, stopper or other seal has either been removed or only broken.  In most cases, the container must also be nearby and accessible to the driver, but in some cases, drivers have been charged even if the container is in the possession of a passenger when the container has been opened or the seal was broken.

Of course, in most states, persons drinking in a motor vehicle, driver or passenger may be additionally charged under DUI/DWI laws.

Persons not in a motor vehicle, but in possession of an open container and drinking in public, may be charged with public drunkenness, or if they have engaged in disorderly behavior, additionally charged under such laws, or for violating local noise ordinances.

Applicable Penalties For Violation  

The penalties for violation of open container laws vary widely from state to state and from local jurisdiction to local jurisdiction.  In some cases, it is an “infraction,” punishable by fines ranging from $25 to $100.  In other cases, it is a misdemeanor, with larger fines, and even imprisonment for a period of from up to 30 days to as many as 120 days, with community service, sometimes imposed.

If the driver of a vehicle is so charged, the person’s driver’s license may also be suspended for a period of time. Repeat offenders are subject, in some cases, to imprisonment for up to one year.

In cases involving drinking and driving, the laws covering DUI/DWI would also apply, with applicable penalties.

Legal Help in Open Container Cases

Because state and local laws are always subject to change, it is essential to consult a qualified attorney, especially one experienced in defending clients in open container cases.